2013 Character Boot Camp: Crafting Complex Characters

Originally Published: February 2013

by Gabriela Pereira

photo by Jenna Ward

Mary Kole, senior literary manager at Movable Type and author of the popular blog KidLit.com, gave writers practical advice on “Crafting Complex Characters” in her morning workshop, along with exercises to help writers apply her techniques.

According to Kole, kids read because they want to bond with the characters in books, and that means writers must create characters kids will love (or love to hate). In order to create these relatable characters, writers can use a tool called a “save the cat” moment, named for an incident in The Hunger Games, when a previously unlikeable character does something that redeems him- or herself in the eyes of the reader.

Save the Cat is also the title of a screenwriting book by Blake Snyder that Kole said influenced her as she wrote her own recent book: Writing Irresistible Kidlit. Kole stressed that writers should not read writing books only in their chosen area or genre. Her “save the cat” technique¾one that is used often in screenwriting¾can apply to stories or novels as well.

Why is the “save the cat” technique so important? Kole said, “Realistic teens are not nice.” Characters that realistically represent children or teens can often be mean, petty or even have a bullying streak. But if writers remove these less appealing qualities, the characters may come across as unreal. On the other hand, it is difficult for the reader to sympathize or identify with a character who does not have at least one redeeming quality.

Kole showed writers several ways to “dig deep and tell the truth” with their stories. For instance, she stressed that even if the protagonist does not get what he or she wants until the end of the story, it’s important that the character move toward his or her goal throughout the book.

Characters often don’t even know what they want, or they want something that is actually the opposite of what is good for them. Allowing the character to figure out what he or she wants and letting that character make mistakes and fail along the way are part of creating an effective character arc.

Kole stressed the importance of writers experimenting with different techniques and getting feedback to find out what works and what doesn’t. As Kole said, “Writers are legendary for ignoring their guts.” Often a critique ends up confirming something that the writer knows already, and the critique can validate that gut instinct.

Kole ended by quoting the words of famous children’s book editor Ursula Nordstrom: “If I can resist a book, I resist it.” This means, Kole explained, that writers must hold themselves to a high standard and strive to make their books impossible to resist. Both this Boot Camp workshop and Kole’s book Writing Irresistible Kidlitcan help writers make their books irresistible.


Gabriela Pereira is the Creative Director and Founder of DIY MFA, the do-it-yourself alternative to a Master’s degree in writing. She holds an MFA in Writing for Children from The New School and has taught at several organizations throughout New York City. When she’s not teaching or working on DIY MFA, Gabriela enjoys writing middle grade and teen fiction, with some “short stories for grown-ups” thrown in for good measure. Visit DIYMFA.com for more information.

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